31 October 2006

Who are we really?

While attending a junior high school music camp at the University of Masschusetts, I discovered the campus bookstore's Judaica section. While the other campers were doing more age-appropriate activities - whatever those were back then - I was looking at the books.

While others wrote home for spending money for pizza and the movies, mine was spent on books. The first "real" book I bought that summer was Cecil Roth’s “The History of the Marranos.” The stories of those who are still “hiding out” centuries after the Inquisition continues to absorb me.

Whether they were caught up in the Spanish Inquisition, or became the Jadid-al-Islam after an 1832 forced conversion in Mashad, Iran, their stories continue to pull at our collective heartstrings.

Although the Mashadis returned openly to Judaism as soon as they could, we still hear about emerging conversos in the American Southwest, South America, Spain and elsewhere. Sephardic discussion groups are full of people from around the world asking about their names, strange family traditions and, ultimately, their connection to Judaism.

Think about it: If you and your family had been caught up in similar circumstances, could you have held on in secret, transmitting traditions and keeping your beliefs alive for hundreds of years?

I am indebted to Barbara Taverna who posted information about an interesting article on the Anousim list, which is for “descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews (or any Jews worldwide) who were forced to convert in the 15th century.”

Written in April 2006, the article “Los Judios Nuevos: The Plight of the Anusim,” is by Juan Mejia, resident rabbi of Temple Emanuel in the Bronx, New York. Born in Bogota, Colombia, he is studying in the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical program.

Writes Mejia:

My own grandfather remembered very vividly how twice a day the men in the family, wealthy land-owners in northwestern Colombia, would "put towels on their heads and read from strange books that they never showed to anyone." He would later confirm his suspicions that the family was not just peculiar but also Jewish.

These stories are only a sample of the vast trove of oral traditions in several regions of Latin America that attest to the Jewish origins of some of its inhabitants. I have collected them throughout my years of sharing with other descendants of the anusim and investigating their history.

Click here for the complete article in the Be’chol Lashon newsletter of the non-profit Institute for Jewish and Community Research, headed by Dr. Gary Tobin of San Francisco. For additional interesting articles, click here.

Mejia’s article originally appeared in PresenTense: Jewish Life Here and Now, a print and online magazine, which also offers articles of interest.


  1. I was searching online for blogs mentioning the anusim and I found this post. Thank you for mentioning this issue. I have Jewish origins, but was raised Catholic and have been on a very long journey to find my spiritual and genealogical roots.

  2. Hi, Tracey.

    Best of luck in your search. You will find many others on the same quest. Have you checked out Sephardim.com, at www.sephardim.com? Harry Stein has an email discussion list of some 2,000 individuals worldwide. Many of them are in the same situation.

    With best wishes,